National 7(b) - universalism
Published on: Mar 3, 2016
Transcripts - National 7(b) - universalism
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“The SNP Is NotA Progressive Party”screamed the headlineinanarticle inthe Heraldlastweek
underthe by-line of journalistCatherine Macleod.
Criticisingthe SNP fornotbeingprogressiveenough mighthave some credibility comingfroma
Green, a socialist, amemberof the Radical IndependenceCampaign, orevenaleft-leaningSNP
But Catherine MacLeodisa fully paidupmemberof the New Labourproject. She supported Tony
Blairfrom day one, and spentthree yearsbetween 2007 and 2010 as AlistairDarling’sspecial
The substance of her argumentisthat the SNP can’t be progressive because itpromotes free
university education, which“benefits the betteroff tothe same extentasithelpsthe poorer”.
Yes itdoes– andthat’s exactly the pointof universalism.
Now I don’tthink fora minute thatNew Labourpoliticians andtheirspecialadvisers don’t
understand the philosophy of universalism. They once passionately arguedthatservices like the NHS
shouldbe provided free atthe pointof use through general taxation, andavailable toeveryone
irrespectiveof wealthorincome. Forthe oldlabourmovementthiswasthe cornerstone of building
a socially cohesiveandmore equal society.
Today’sbreedof Labour politicians dounderstand universalism–and they rejectit.
But insteadof waginganhonestideological warpitchingindividualismagainstcollectivism, and
means-testingagainstuniversalism, they resorttodistortions of language thatOrwell’sMinistry of
Truth would be proud of.
Mind you, suchword gamesare inevitable whenthere’slittle evidence tosupportyourideological
agenda. Asa recentstudy bythe ReidFoundation –The Case forUniversalism – demonstrates, all
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the evidence showsthat‘targeting’and‘testing’isintrusive, burdensome andexpensive, while
societies whichembeduniversalismare the mostsuccessful, whicheverperformanceindicatoris
In centuries past, Scotland ledthe worldbyintroducingfree elementary education. The resultwas
the ScottishEnlightenment, thatextraordinary explosion of creativity inphilosophy,science,
mathematics, literature, geology, chemistry, medicine andmany otherfields.
Back in the 1980s, Neil Kinnock, the manwhobeganNew Labourproject, made a rousingspeech to
a party conference inthe 1980s, inwhichhe asked:“Why am I the firstKinnock ina thousand
generations togoto university? WhyisGlenysthe firstwomaninherfamily inathousand
generations tobe able toget to university? Wasitbecause ourpredecessors were thick?Orbecause
they didn’thave the talentorthe strengthor the endurance orthe commitment?Of course not.”
It was, of course, all down to free education andstudentgrants.
I don’tthink free education isall thatisnecessary. Ididn’tgoto university whenIleftschool –
despite free tuitionandthe availability of grants. The impactof general inequality meantthatwhenI
visitedthe cloisters of Glasgow University, Ifeltlikeanalienwhowould neverfitin.
But free education hastobe one of the buildingblocksinthe construction of amore equal society.
The four mostprogressive andegalitarianstatesinEurope – Norway, Denmark,Sweden andFinland
– all have free education. Sodoa numberof left-leaningLatinAmericancountries. Scotland stands
proudly among44 countries inthe worldthatsee accessto the highestformsof education asa right
rather thana privilege.
Withoutideasbasedoncollectivism, people wouldneverhave hadaccessto vital services suchasa
publicwatersupply. Ittookvisionaries, withanethos rootedinuniversalism, todeliversuchthings.
In the mid-nineteenth century, whenlifeexpectancy inGlasgow wasjust34, councillors tackledits
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dreadful publichealthproblembypumpingwaterintothe every household inthe city. Noone was
means-testedbefore they were connected tothe mains.
The ideaof universal provision paidforfromgeneral taxationreacheditspinnacle afterthe Second
WorldWar. The Labour Government, inastate drained dry by the SecondWorldWar, poured
everythingintoconsolidatingandexpandinguniversal healthprovision andestablishingthe NHS– a
service the wealthy couldaccessaseasily asthe poor. I wonderif Catherine MacLeodisprepared to
openly make the case fora “targeted”healthservice?
Universalismisthe simplestandmosteffectiveway of ensuringthatservices, andfinancial help, gets
to those whoneeditmost. “Targeting”, “assessing”, “testing”–rationinginotherwords – invariably
keepsoutthe folk inmostneed. Andmistakes, fraudandoverpayments are more likely inthe
The beauty of universal services isthatthey are inclusive. Idon’twantto live inasociety where the
wealthy are isolated ingatedcommunities. Idowantto live ina society where we’re all equal
citizens, enjoyinguniversal services asaright, and payingforthemintoone bigpot through
progressive taxation. Iwantto live inasociety inwhicheveryone feelsthatthey have astake in our
publicservices, irrespectiveof theirincome.
It’susually the leftwhoare accusedof stokingupclassdivisions, buttoday’srightwingLabourParty
seemintentongeneratinghostility towards studentsfrombetter-off backgrounds. AndIsuspect
that if Catherine Macleodhadbeenaround inGlasgow inthe 19th
century, she’dbe complaining
aboutthe wealthy gettingwaterfromLochKatrine.
Now, if she were tostart talkinginstead aboutwhethertheirparentswere payingafairand
proportionate amountintothe general taxationpot, Imightstart takinglessons fromheronwhatis